Saturday, 27 September 2014

Ever been interviewed by a bus driver?

When preparing for an interview, many people focus on having prepared answers for how they deal with challenges, how they maximise their experience and how they articulate what they can bring to the new organisation.

These are all important things. Equally, employers have interview questions prepared to get these answers and perhaps also have a few psychometric tests in reserve to identify the most suitable candidate.

Having done a good few interviews over the years and seen this in action, I was impressed by an article in the Wall St Journal which took a simpler and perhaps a more insightful view on screening candidates.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explained how they use the shuttle bus driver as a key part of the recruitment process. Many of their candidates come from out of town and they send the company shuttle bus to collect them at the airport. There is usually a full day of interviews before they are dropped back to the airport. Before any decision is made on hiring, the recruiter gets a report from the shuttle bus driver. Regardless of the formal interviews, if the bus driver wasn’t well treated, the candidate does not get the job.

What Zappos are doing here is gauging how well people interact with others in a real world setting, not some lab based personality test. The same idea could be applied by asking the receptionist how a person behaved when waiting to be called in or asking an administrator how the person acted when finalising the interview times, contact numbers etc.

As an employer this can compliment the more formal aspects of the recruitment process and perhaps cut through some of the prepared answers to get a real insight into the candidates social skills. As a candidate, be aware that you are always under scrutiny, even if it is the receptionist or bus driver asking the questions.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Future is more valuable than the Past

We care more about the future than about the past. Several studies have shown that we value events in the future more than we value equivalent events in the past.

The nineteenth century American author Herman Melville (he of Moby Dick fame) is often quoted on this – “The Past is dead, and has no resurrection; but the Future is endowed with such a life, that it lives to us even in anticipation.”

As one study puts it, the person who buys a cookie and eats it right away may get X units of pleasure from it, but the person who saves the cookie until later gets X units of pleasure when it is eventually eaten plus all the additional pleasure of looking forward to the event. Looking forward to stuff increases the enjoyment we get from it and hence we value it more.

In research by Caruso and colleagues they found that students wanted more money for a mundane job they would do in the future than for one they had already done in the past, and mock-jurors awarded more money to an accident victim who was going to suffer for a year than who had already suffered for a year.

The results consistently show that once something has happened, we value it less than we did in the lead up to an event. This has a few practical implications for how we pay for services and compensate clients or employees.

If you work in the legal profession, it may be wise to get compensation agreed for your client before they recover from their injuries. If you are drafting a service level agreement with a supplier you would be better off having any punitive reimbursement amounts agreed in advance rather than calculated afterwards. If you are trying to get a bonus organised, get it agreed before you achieve your targets rather than after, don’t go into your boss looking for a rise because you have had a good year. Once it’s in the past your boss won’t value it as much as he might have done six months earlier.

There is also another point to note here. If we plan stuff in the future and take the time to think about it or actively anticipate it, we will feel better. A supporting study by Bryant has found that people who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences report being happier in general. Bonuses and compensation aside, it pays to savour. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

We come up with more creative solutions for others

In work, some managers have a tendency to assign a problem or issue to a specific subordinate. It literally becomes ‘their problem’ and it’s up to them to solve it. Some would see this approach as one that encourages responsibility and ownership of the task in hand. In other words, if you make someone directly accountable, they will be more motivated and perhaps more effective in coming up with a solution.

Some research however casts doubt on this approach. Being too close to a problem or being personally involved in it can affect our ability to come up with creative solutions. This is based on an idea called the "Construal Level Theory" - the notion that distance from a problem provokes a more abstract thinking style.

Evan Polman and Kyle Emich at New York University examined how we are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. They conducted four studies involving hundreds of undergrads.

In one study they found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves. In another study, participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month.

When it came to problem solving the trend continued. Participants were given a tower puzzle. They were asked to explain how one could escape a tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. (The solution is to divide the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together). Participants were more likely to solve the problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves.

This could explain why we sometimes surprise ourselves when giving advice or solutions to others. We are more likely to be creative and think in an abstract way when sorting out someone else’s problem rather than our own. This could impact on how we assign problems (like the tower puzzle) to co-workers. Perhaps we could construct the task so that they see it as someone else’s problem but one they are asked to help solve.

Next time you have a problem to delegate, try and create some healthy distance between the conundrum and the person coming up with the solution. You might see improved results.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Shake it up - New faces help group creativity

We all know it’s good to shake it up a little every now and again, to introduce some new faces to different areas of the business or to assign people to new roles. We see it at government level in cabinet reshuffles, we even see it in sports teams where a few fresh faces gets the whole team playing differently.

I recently came across some research in this area from Hoon-Seok Choi at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and Leigh Thompson at Northwestern University, USA. They looked at how new faces impact on a groups level of creativity.

The study examined the creativity of 33 three-person groups across two tasks. The idea was very simple. After the first task, half the groups exchanged one of their team for a newcomer from another group. The other half of the groups kept the same personnel throughout. The first task got the groups to think of as many ways as possible to categorise 12 vegetables into subgroups (e.g. can be eaten raw vs. cannot be eaten raw). The second task asked the groups to think of as many uses as possible for a cardboard box.

There were no differences between the groups for the first task. They all came up with roughly the same number of sub groups for vegetables. However, when it came to the second task, the groups who swapped one of their members then went on to think of significantly more uses for a cardboard box, and significantly more different kinds of uses, than did the groups who’d kept the same members. Further analysis of the contributions made by each individual showed that the new guy on the team increased the creativity of the two original team members.

There could be downsides to this however. For example you could break up a well-balanced group, you could introduce personality conflicts or create leadership rivalries. Getting back to sport teams, you might see this go wrong when a manager tinkers too much with a winning team.

That aside, if you have a group that needs to be creative or innovative, try and mix it up a little. Fix any conflicts as they arise. Those fresh faces and new perspectives not only bring new inputs but also get the incumbents thinking more creatively. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Motivation via The Goal Gradient Effect

Charting progress is important. If you are a software developer, keep a list of the bugs you fix and knock them off one by one. If you are cold calling, keep track of the calls made and hopefully a few sales too. This sounds a bit obvious, we are likely to track work we have completed. The point here however is that it’s a good idea to visually display the work completed as progress, so you can see a list or some other evidence that you are getting places. This is known as the Goal Gradient Effect.

An article on Business Insider explains this in a neat way. It cites a study in the Journal of Market Research which looked at a coffee shop that uses frequent buyer cards. Regular customers were given frequent buyer cards. Each time they bought a cup of coffee they got their card stamped. When the card was filled they got a free cup of coffee. However there were two different scenarios:

Card A: The card had 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.
Card B: The card had 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

The research looked at how long it would take to get the card filled. Would it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you would have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The results say it does. Card B gets filled faster than Card A. It is the Goal-Gradient Effect in action.

The goal-gradient effect was first noticed in research with rats where they would run faster as they got to the end of the maze and closer to their food reward.

The goal-gradient effect makes us accelerate our behaviour as we get closer to our goal.

The take-way here could be these two points. Firstly, the closer we get to our goal the more motivated we are. Therefore structuring peoples work schedule (to have goals tangibly close and not weeks or months away) or sales targets becomes an important part of ensuring people are motivated and pushing themselves.

Secondly, the progression towards a goal can be an illusion or contrived (as shown the in coffee shop research). Giving someone a ‘head start’ or making it look like you can start progressing straight away improves motivation. Getting back to the software developer, give them some short ‘easy’ bugs first to get the ball rolling. For the cold caller, have the early targets based on getting the sales script right rather than closing any sales.

For the marketing people, maybe the coffee shop customer behaviour has lessons for how we distribute loyalty card points or explain bulk purchase schemes. We like our goals, almost as much as our coffee.